Tenure and the Public Intellectual

May 18, 2009 | Blog

The Chronicle this morning covers the case of Boyce Watkins, a “public scholar” engaged in a tenure dispute with Syracuse University. Watkins entered the tenure track in 2001 and was just denied tenure, ostensibly due to a weak case in both teaching and research. He is best known for his engagement in the public media, where he’s taken on college athletics (the Holy Grail) and sparred with Bill O’Reilly.

The nature of tenure decisions make it very hard to know what’s really happened here– the specifics of the case aren’t public, and are subject to so much interpretation. It’s possible the decision represents the failings of the individual, his department, and/or the University’s P&T committee. We can’t know whom to blame. But what I think is most important here is how Watkins, as a junior faculty member, is reflecting on the words of his college president, Nancy Cantor.

In 2005 Cantor made several great statements calling for the kinds of systematic changes needed to support the growth and development of true public intellectuals from within academic settings. Cantor clearly understands how tenure and promotion criteria can actively constrain public engagement by placing a greater emphasis on placing research in dusty library journals than in a more public sphere. The former is said to reflect real “peer” review, when the latter– truthfully– receives much more extensive review and critique by a broader (and often quite smart) group of peers. (Anyone who is silently questioning the intellect of online readers should check themselves now and admit their snobbery. The vast majority of professors constituting the “peer” group aren’t half as well-read as this highly engaged group of readers.) The focus on the former reinforces where time is to be spent, and where it’s not– if one hopes to continue acting as a public intellectual within academia past their 30s or 40s.

The role of the administration in setting the criteria for promotion and tenure varies by institution (and likely in systematic ways I’m unaware of- this is not my area of research). At some schools, faculty-governance rules. At others, the administration is able to set directions and lead the way. I personally think the administration, charged with setting the overall tone and direction for the institution, should have a much stronger role in tenure criteria than it does at faculty-governed institutions. I know many of you (especially faculty) will disagree with me here, and trust me I understand the dangers of administration having a heavier hand in the tenure process. But that said, I don’t think our peers are any less likely to judge based on politics than our administration is– in fact, with more cooks stirring the pot under the guise of objectivity, it’s more likely to happen and less easy to detect.

I’m troubled by the way that the will of Syracuse’s strong and forward-thinking leadership appears to have been compromised by its faculty-led promotion and tenure committees. We task our presidents and chancellors with bringing vision to the job, and helping move us into the future– not maintaining the status quo. I think it’s arguably hard to accomplish big goals with no control over how faculty are rewarded for their work.

For example, an administration could effect important changes in the climate and practices of a university by (A) Establishing undergraduate teaching as a criteria for tenure (B) Rewarding grant-getting in the P&T decision, and (C) establishing that the activities of a public intellectual (including blogging and media engagement) count toward service.

This would no doubt go a long way toward getting faculty in front of undergrads, increasing R&D funds, and increasing the popular visibility of the university, generating more public support. Right now, the work prized by most faculty results in publications in stale library journals hardly read by the general public, and an emphasis on graduate instruction. Hardly the university of the future….

Now, what happened at Syracuse is still hard to say. One thing makes Watkins’ claims less than compelling– he hit the tenure-track at Syracuse in 2001, and Cantor didn’t begin talking about changes to P&T until 2005. So, at minimum, he should’ve spent several years doing the traditional things needed to get tenure, if he’d hoped to continue. The way this reads, it sounds like he read Cantor’s statements to reinforce his own beliefs and at the same time to excuse what I suspect he recognizes is a somewhat weak record. That’s kind of lame, and if he’s honest with himself, he’ll cop to it.

But in many ways it’s beside the point. I’d like to see more attention paid to how the world has changed, and how our leaders can help bring the faculty along– including providing compelling reasons to adjust our P&T guidelines to ensure that highly visible smart people can find a place in universities for a long time to come. They should not have to silence themselves until they’ve “earned it.” After all, what the heck does earning it even mean?


  1. Reply


    May 19, 2009

    as someone on the faculty at SU (though not in the Management School), i just wanted to say this is one of the more nuanced and attentive readings of this case that i've seen. there are 3 major issues for SU that are exposed here, though they have been pressing long before Watkins' case:

    1) exactly what kinds of "public scholarship" will be rewarded by SU and written into P/T guidelines? there has been significant debate about whether the kind of work Watkins has done counts as public scholarship. is it a form of scholarship, or is it merely a form of commentary? what constitutes the difference between scholars who use media as a platform like bell hooks, Michael Eric Dyson, and Marc Lamont Hill on one hand, and Watkins on the other? more important, WHO decides exactly what counts?

    2) how exactly will public scholarship or "scholarship in action" figure into P/T evaluations? will/should it be an area of its own, along with the well known "scholarship, teaching, service," or does one weave his scholarship in action activity into the 3 categories? how much weight can/should it be given? i suspect that uncertainty around these issues at SU would have made it very difficult for Watkins to make the best possible case for himself, even if his publications do fit a traditional "research 1" profile.

    3) how will SU (and other universities attempting to navigate ideas of engaged scholarship) handle cases of scholars who have very important roles to play in the academy but are untenurable in their disciplines? should they stick to the 1 year terminal contract that in essence, kicks someone out of the academy? should there be other kinds of faculty lines that offer some job security outside of the tenure track?

    one final note about p/t cases in general: most junior faculty go up for tenure during their 6th (not their 8th) year at a university. this might mean that Watkins has been given an extension or an opportunity to stop the clock in order to pursue work that would be rewarded under the Management school's criteria (no matter how fair or unfair or stale those criteria are judged to be). this fact does NOT imply that Watkins got a fair deal--he still could have been unfairly evaluated. but it does suggest that extra opportunities were made available.

    Watkins' case has profound implications for how SU will define and implement Cantor's vision of "Scholarship in Action," and how much other universities are willing to risk in creating similar models. the implications will come not from how his case is resolved but from how SU resolves these larger philosophical questions.

  2. Reply

    Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab

    May 19, 2009

    Thanks for writing. I want to respond to just one point: the fact that Watkins went up in his 8th year does not necessarily mean (at all) that "extra opportunities" were made available to him. In fact, colleges can rarely provide such stoppages to further someone's work- they do so because the person had a child or significant family care responsibilities. I see from his CV he has a daughter- that may well explain the one year. And by my calculations, with a PhD earned in 2002, he was due to go up originally in 2007-2008, with a one year extension for a child that is 2008-2009, which is exactly when he went up. On time.

  3. Reply

    Dr Will

    May 22, 2009

    Watkins went up in his 6th year, since his tenure clock likely started in January 2003. He received his PhD in November 2002 and if they started the clock after graduation, that would give him 6 years at the start of 2009.

    An added point is that we should be aware of the fact that there is a huge difference in how Watkins is perceived by the black community outside of SU vs. the not so black community inside SU. He is hailed as the next Cornel West outside the university, and these statements were made by leading African American scholars. Within SU, he likely endured the same kind of jealousy and anxiety that Bob Thompson experienced in the Newhouse school. If you measure his capabilities on scholarly impact, which I've seen referred to in many tenure evaluations, you cannot deny that this man's work has impacted the world. In this test of freedom of speech and thought, SU has failed miserably. Cantor also loses her reputation as being a champion for the black community, as she has allowed for the professional slaughter of one of the black community's academic heroes.

  4. Reply


    December 14, 2009

    I saw his list of research and publications and they are very poor. I am not surprised he was denied tenure. I work at a similar university (in terms of rigor in T&P) and he wouldn't survive the departmental round, much less the school and university levels.

    Besides, I am sure his annual review letters document that he has been continually informed that his academic performance is below minimum expectations of a TT faculty member at SU.

Would you like to share your thoughts?

Would you like to share your thoughts?

Leave a Reply

© 2013 The EduOptimists. All Rights Reserved.